On 10th June this year, Alika celebrated her seventh birthday in the company of friends and family. Her thin lips curled into a crooked smile that slumps ever so slightly on the right side of her face. After cake and presents, she played with her two best friends, the daughters of her legal guardians, Mr. and Mrs. Mehta*. Were it not for the eldest of the two siblings, Soni*, Alika may very well not be alive today.
Mr. Mehta, Alika’s current legal guardian, seems to think so. On the 3rd July, 2017, he took to the witness box, and laid out reams of evidence that point directly to Alika’s precarious medical condition. Just as shocking were the attempts by some members of the Oshwal community to keep Alika’s case out of the public limelight, all of which he recorded and laid before the court. He started with the first time he heard about Alika:
“My daughter Soni* would talk about her particular friend who would always come to school with wounds,” he began.
“We didn’t think much of it, but she would continue talking about her friend, so we wondered, are they being bullied at school?”
Mehta would go to My School and inquire about this friend of his daughter’s. Bijal Shah, the headmistress of My School would show him the photos she had taken of Alika. Those photos, it would appear, forever changed him.
Mehta consulted with members of the Oshwal community who knew about Alika’s case, but sensed an inertia that he couldn’t understand. After consulting his lawyer, Mehta sought and obtained a court order to have Alika removed from her parent’s custody.
The rescue would happen on the 9th July 2015 in Parklands, where Alika’s parents had rented an apartment. Anjlee Ghadvi Noorani, a well-known local television news anchor, who had waited in the parking lot as her cameraman filmed the dramatic three-hour rescue, remembers seeing a gaunt but seemingly relieved girl being carried off in the arms of Penina Kanyithia. Peninah was the Children’s Officer assigned to by the court to make that rescue.
Alika would be transferred immediately to the Agha Khan hospital where she would undergo a battery of tests to ascertain the status of her health.
Yet again, the reports that came back bore more news of injuries, some of which were categorized as non-accidental:
“A skeletal survey done showed a fractured humerus (the long bone in the upper arm).
“ENT review showed a deviation of the nasal septum.”
“Dental review confirmed significant dental cavities.”
These results formed part of the report prepared by Dr. Adil Waris, a paediatrician at the Agha Khan hospital.
Alika, it would appear, was at best, a badly cared for child, and at worst, a very badly abused little girl.
Mehta’s testimony then went further into deeply unsettling testimony, punctuated only by guiding questions from the prosecutor, and an occasional protest by Mr. and Mrs. J’s lawyer over the seeming lack of context of his testimony. Chief Magistrate Hellen Onkwani allowed him to proceed. He started with a series of meetings that were held between the 12th and the 30th July 2015, between himself and members of the Visa Oshwal Committee. Two committee members would approach him with a most surprising offer:
“I was approached by Mr. Mukesh Savla and Mr. Mansuk Shah. They were very persistent that I should withdraw all the cases as they were fearful that this would harm the image of the community.”
“They offered me unconditional rights to adopt the child if I was to withdraw the matter.”
“How will you handle the criminal case?” Mehta asked.
Mansuk Shah replied: “ Sorting out the court is not a big matter.”
Mr. Mehta made an audio recording of this troubling conversation, which was entered as part of the evidence in Alika’s case.
In the course of pursuing this case, I had called Mr. Mukesh Savla to get his perspective about what transpired in the VOC’s handling of Alika’s case.
“I have nothing to say to you”, he told me, before hanging up.
After Mr. Mehta was done with this section, I stole a few glances around the packed courtroom. Stunned faces met me everywhere I looked. Mrs. Mehta hadn’t broken her gaze at her husband, but her eyes were now watery and her cheeks flushed. A young trainee lawyer on pupilage who was seated next to me sighed, as her eyes darted back and forth from Mr. Mehta, in the witness stand, to Mr. and Mrs. J, in the dock. Everyone in the room that I could see looked affected by what they had just heard, save for the Judge, and Mrs. J. She wore the same blank slate on her face. Her husband, Mr.J, wasn’t giving much away either, although the furrows on his forehead deepened now and again, as blow after blow was delivered from the witness dock. He would constantly look down at his phone, but the female police officer standing by the dock whispered rather loudly to him to put it away.
More was yet to come. After receiving Alika’s full medical records from the defense in October 2015, Mr. Mehta was informed that Alika had a hole in her skull that was six centimetres long. Not only was it life threatening, but it also seems to have set him thinking about what may have caused it. Could it have been her fall from a sofa while she was ten months old; the same all that is said to have caused paralysis to the right side of her body?
Mehta hired a UK based company, Longmere Consultants, a team of forensic scientists to investigate what could have caused such a major fall. Forensic scientists are usually called upon to establish the cause of accidents or crimes using evidence such as medical records. Mehta put Alika through a fresh CT scan and also sent the medical records he had to Longmere. Two damning reports came back:
The interim report said the following:
“It is impossible for a child to fall from a sofa, injure the left side of her head but also leave a significant impact on the right side of her head.”
The forensic scientists then reconstructed what could have happened to Alika, given the size of the hole in her skull:
“The child was seated in an upright position and was struck from the back using a metal rod.”
X-Ray image of the skull:
As a result of the suspected injury, Mr. Mehta told the court that he had been advised to take immediate steps to get Alika medical attention. Quoting a number of subsequent medical reports, Mr. Mehta then said that he made the decision to take Alika to India to fix the hole in her skull.
The young girl would undergo a six-hour surgery to fill the hole in her skull, coming out with 140 staples clamped into her shaven scalp.
Alika’s life may have been out of danger, but the Mehta’s ordeal was far from over. Nor were the attempts to keep Alika’s story quiet.